Back in 2009, Gareth Evans and a former cell-phone service technician, Iko Uwais, made a movie about silat, Indonesia’s martial art. It was called Merantau and served as a calling card for both star and director. The action was energetic, Uwais had charisma to burn, and the story was fun exploitation fare. But while shooting one of the action scenes in an elevator between Uwais and a silat teacher, Yayan Ruhian, Evans had the idea to bring Ruhian on board for his next movie as a co-star and action choreographer. The follow-up was supposed to be an epic gangster drama, but Evans couldn’t raise the funds and decided to shoot something more contained instead. It was the best thing that could have happened.

The Raid 2

The Raid: Redemption told the story of a squad of cops trying to arrest a drug kingpin holed up in an apartment building populated entirely by criminals. Something of a moviemaking miracle, it was an example of the kind of narrative economy only the best movies manage. Now, Evans has gone back to his gangster movie, styling it as a sequel to The Raid called The Raid 2: Berandal. It premiered at Sundance and has been released by art-house distributor Sony Pictures Classics, it’s stylishly shot, edited with a lot of confidence in the audience’s ability to follow parallel action, and the action is faster and more brutal than anything else on the market.

The Raid 2 (which is opening here without the subtitle) picks up immediately after the ending of the previous movie with surviving cop Rama (Uwais) contacting one of the few policemen not marinated in corruption, Bunawar, who is determined to take down the two crime families that run Jakarta: Bangun’s clan, and the Japanese Goto family. Rama’s brother has recently been killed and so, eager for revenge, and worried about his family’s safety, he allows himself to be arrested in order to get close to Bangun’s hot-headed son, Uco, who’s serving out a prison sentence. He wins Uco’s confidence, and when he gets out (long after Uco), he’s a made man in Bangun’s gang. But Uco is chafing at the bit and has allied himself with outside gang leader Bejo, who wants to turn Bangun and Goto on each other, then claim the city from the exhausted victor.

Most reviewers have focused on the action and they should, because it’s amazing. Evans, Uwais, and Ruhain spent months of pre-production choreographing the scenes, shooting them on video and editing them to see what they could pull off. Their action is shot wider, showing more of the actor’s feet and legs than normal, and the scenes can run from seven to almost 11 minutes. Most shots in an action movie show the actors executing two or three movements before cutting to the next shot, but performers in The Raid 2: Berandal exchange an average of four combinations in each shot, sometimes hitting 19 when the combatants are more skilled.

Evan’s great innovation in action filmmaking, however, is his mobile camerawork. In Hollywood, action scenes are shot using coverage, filming the action with long shots, then medium shots, then close-ups, sometimes using multiple cameras, and the editor assembles the scene in the editing room. Hong Kong invented segment shooting, in which each shot is filmed from one angle with one camera, designed for maximum impact, and then the next shot is built onto it; the fight grows organically without using master shots, and the result is a scene that’s practically edited in camera. Evans uses what appears to be a combination of these styles, but he keeps his camera mobile. His signature move is a handheld camera that circles around the fighters as they exchange blows, but he uses dolly shots, cranes, and camera operators passing the camera between moving vehicles to follow his characters through windows, down stairs, and over tables. 

The Raid 2

But while there is an exhilarating rush to the technique and the physicality of the film, what’s it all about? For all the devoted sons, back-stabbing sons, treacherous fathers, incompetent fathers, and dutiful fathers, it’s hard to put your finger on what story this movie is telling, until you realize that it’s not really an action movie at all.

Some critics complained that The Raid: Redemption had too little story, but what it really had was an economy of storytelling. The movie had two emotional moments that drove the film. The first came late in the running time when cop Rama encounters a family member in the building. But what carried us through the movie till then was a very simple scene at the beginning. The movie opened with Rama portrayed as a nice, observant Muslim boy saying his prayers, nuzzling his pregnant wife, and getting ready to go to work. There was a gentle, shorthand sweetness to the scene that lingered through the rest of the movie, reminding us that Rama had a home and a family worth coming home to. 

In The Raid 2, Rama says he’s motivated by a desire to protect his family, but in a two-and-a-half hour movie, his wife gets about three minutes of screen time. In The Raid: Redemption, Rama is constantly trying to get home. In The Raid 2 when he gets out of prison he calls his family and discovers that his wife has been patiently waiting for him, apparently unfazed that he disappeared for two years. Afterwards, he mentions their safety twice in passing, but at no point are we led to believe they’re in immediate danger, and at no point does he try to visit them. In one scene, Rama slips his gang handlers in order to secretly trail Uco and film him at a meeting with Bejo. It’s telling that when he has an unobserved moment, he chooses to pursue his revenge and do his job, rather than seeing his wife or son.

The Raid 2

In The Raid: Redemption the fights were emotionally varied: a fight to protect a wounded friend, a fight of mutual respect between two opponents, a fight between a traitor and the one he betrayed, a fight about trying to escape a room. In The Raid 2 there is one emotion motivating the fights: revenge. It’s a hard movie that needs to keep women, family, and softness off-screen at all costs.

Grim and humorless by necessity, the second the sloppiness of real life or an ounce of humor penetrate this movie it would all fall apart. It’s no coincidence that the few moments of levity occur only when women are onscreen. The mute assassin known as Hammer Girl is so ridiculously serious that she provides several laughs, and at one point a porn actress struts past the camera wearing a strap-on dildo and complaining about her fellow actor. There’s also a bar girl in a karaoke who manages to lip off with some welcome sarcasm. Otherwise, this is a movie where no one is allowed to crack a smile or wear bright colors.

There is no joy, no fun, no reveling in the physicality of the action. Most of the people fighting have no names, don’t know why they’re fighting, and proceed to dispense mayhem like efficient machines. The Raid 2 hints at more going on behind the scenes than expressionless, nameless people hurting each other, but we never get more than hints. They fight for anger or for money. The world of this film is the most cynical world imaginable—one that lives up to all our worst expectations. It’s a world where there is no kindness, no emotion beyond rage. It’s a paralyzed world of cynicism where women are absent, and men are unhinged violence dispensers, where everyone is corrupt, and everyone betrays everyone else. Everyone is a disappointment, angry, cruel.

The Raid 2

There comes a moment in the middle of the movie in which one character chats with another while casually slitting the throats of several bound men who betrayed him. It’s followed by a series of parallel scenes showing some flamboyant hit-men dispensing with their targets. We have no idea why these people are being killed, and we have no idea of what the stakes are besides murder. That’s when it becomes clear that this is not an action movie—it’s a violence movie. The film’s aesthetic isn’t the aesthetic of action, it’s the aesthetic of horror.

The killers are nameless, they barely speak, they are unstoppable, and they generate massive quantities of gore with trademark weapons. Fights are full of lingering close-ups of faces being burnt, heads being blown open with shotguns, and Achilles tendons being severed. Men wear black leather gloves like giallo killers; rooms are lit in garish red like Hell; and enormous spooky warehouses, empty hallways, and abandoned rooms seem to make up the majority of Jakarta’s real estate. Action is no longer fun. It is hardcore.

This is where action filmmaking has been going for a while, and it’s a testament to the skills of Evans, Uwais, and Ruhian that they got there first. Before Bruce Lee, martial-arts movies were demonstrations of technique, but Lee ushered in an era where the emphasis wasn’t on an exchange of blows but on how quickly Lee could take down his opponent. It was all about power. Jackie Chan was a reaction to that, but for years we’ve been on a road taking us back to that era of brutal efficiency. Korea’s Man From Nowhere, Paul Greengrass’s Bourne movies, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Donnie Yen’s Sha Po Lang and Flashpoint, Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak films which have progressively jettisoned their humor until all that remains is two men beating the crap out of each other. Fighting is no longer a skill to be admired, it’s no longer something to be celebrated, it’s no longer joyous. Fighting is a job that needs to be done, as efficiently as possible. This is a movie about brutality and pain and endurance. It’s not a joyride, it’s a hell march. 

The Raid 2

There are two action sequences that challenge this emotional hellscape. One is a car chase, expertly choreographed by Hong Kong’s Bruce Law, in which one character tries to save another, rather than one character trying to kill another. Shot with an eye for novel effects, it’s one of the movie’s highlights, probably because it stands in such stark contrast to the other action scenes. Then there’s the baffling, but definitely welcome, inclusion of Yayan Ruhian. Playing a kind of homeless killer named Prakoso, he assassinates a character we haven’t met yet, and has an awkward dinner with his ex-wife, before being dispensed with outside a nightclub. His character has no reason to be in the story except as another example of a father failing his family, but his few short scenes demonstrate greater emotional range than any other in the film. 

When Prakoso finally dies at the hand of a killer so brutal he doesn’t even get a name, the screen erupts into a sudden, one-night-only elegiac snowfall. There’s a history of sudden snowfalls in Japanese chanbara, often lending a tragic dignity to the death of a character. Here it’s as if the filmmakers are acknowledging that these characters can’t risk showing feelings beyond a stoic acceptance of pain. So the movie does it for them.

The Raid 2 is the middle of a projected trilogy, and middle films are usually the darkest (see: The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Middle films represent a branching point, allowing the third film to either go darker (as in the case of the Alien franchise) or lighter (as in the Indiana Jones movies). It would be hard to imagine a darker movie than The Raid 2, but it’s always possible, and Evans, Uwais, and Ruhain have a choice. Whether they choose to add Ewoks or kill Newt, it’ll be fascinating to watch.


Ricky Wong

… After encountering unexplained opposition from the Hong Kong government for his television channel, Hong Kong TV, founder Ricky Wong was invited to sit down with the Communication Authority to work out their differences. Psych! The meeting ended even worse than it began, with Wong threatening legal action and the government taking an even harder stance against his channel.

… Actor Chapman To made a guest appearance at Ronald Ng’s concert last week. Also guesting was massive Cantopop star Joey Yung, and To sang one of her songs and made a joke about how she had not won “Best Actress” for a film. Joey fired back over Twitter, and To wound up sending her multiple groveling apologies. Fully understandable since she’s rumored to be the former girlfriend of powerful Emperor Entertainment head honcho Albert Yeung, and since the last actor to make jokes about her wound up being beaten so badly by unidentified attackers that he wound up in the hospital.

…The next sport to burn up the silver screen? Badminton! Ekin Cheng, he of the immortal bangs, is on board to star in a Hong Kong movie, Full Smash, about that most ferocious sport of savage shuttlecock smashing.

… Thailand has a winner! For worst movie ever! Muay Jin Din Kong Lok (“Chinese-Looking Daughter Dances Till the End of the World”) opened on just 15 screens and took in a paltry $1000. It’s become a cultural icon as the worst movie ever made in Thailand, and you only have to take a look at its trailer to feel the pain inside your heart.

… Until last week, only China Film Group had a license to import foreign movies into China, but now a second company has been given permission. China National Culture & Art Corporation just received this groundbreaking license, and there are rumors that as soon as it’s up and running, the quota for foreign films imported into China will be raised from its current level of 34.

Leslie Cheung

… Eleven years ago today, Leslie Cheung, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, killed himself. As always, the tributes are pouring in.

… It was a boring night at the Asian Film Awards last Thursday for everyone except Wong Kar Wai as his film, The Grandmaster, won half the awards, setting a record. The movie took home Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Production Designer, Best Costume Designer, and Best Composer.

Ju Kun

Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Ziyi used the wins as a platform to criticize Malaysia for its handling of the search for Flight 370. Ju Kun, a stuntman who worked on Wong’s The Grandmaster, was on the flight.

… Japan’s bad boy director, Sion Sono, just announced that his new movie would be a live-action adaptation of the racy manga, Shinjuku Swan, about a young man who works the streets to recruit girls to star in porn films and hostess bars. It will probably not win any Asian Film Awards.